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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization

Date: 8 - 9 Nov 2018

Welcome to the UNRISD Conference "Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization"

The full Programme is available here.

Practical information on the event is available here.

Special event

The top-level panel discussion Engines of Inequality? Elites, Power and Politics which UNRISD is co-hosting with the University of Geneva the day before the Conference may also be of interest to you. We are honoured to welcome as speakers :
  • Naila Kabeer, London School of Economics
  • Saskia Sassen, Columbia University
  • Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Council of Eminent Persons, Malaysia

Click here for more details about the opening.

📺 Watch this roundtable

What the conference is about

Inequalities are one of today’s greatest challenges, obstructing poverty reduction and sustainable development. Such disparities are catalysed by elite capture of economic and political power, a reinforcing process that compounds inequality, which—in its various dimensions—undermines social, environmental and economic sustainability, and fuels poverty, insecurity, crime and xenophobia.

As the power of elites grows and societal gaps widen, institutions representing the public good and universal values are increasingly disempowered or co-opted, and visions of social justice and equity side-lined. As a result, society is fracturing in ways that are becoming more and more tangible, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest dramatically rearranging both macro structures and local lifeworlds.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to overcome such disparities, “leaving no one behind”. But how can this ambitious vision be achieved in the current climate, in which those in power act to protect the status quo from which they benefit? How can we build progressive alliances to drive the political and policy changes needed for an equitable, inclusive 21st century eco-social compact?

📃 Download the Overview of the Programme

Objectives and impacts

The Conference brings together expertise from across a diversity of countries and disciplines to:
  • facilitate knowledge exchange and mutual learning across academia, civil society, the UN and national governments, about progressive alliances and policy change for more equitable, sustainable, and just societies;
  • propose evidence-based recommendations for innovative ways in which diverse actors can work together to design and deliver a transformative eco-social compact for the 21st century; and
  • bring this new evidence and analysis, especially from the Global South, to bear on UN debates and policy processes, including implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNRISD will disseminate the evidence and key recommendations from the papers and conference discussions in formats that will support practitioners, activists and decision makers at local, national, regional and global levels. Written outputs include an occasional paper series, a think piece series, and an issue brief. Several follow-up events have explored topics related to the conference, including a seminar series on Insights into Inequalities (see here and here) and a High-Level Political Forum parallel event.

The panels

The conference will comprise 9 panels, each with 5 speakers, who will tease out different aspects of the topics covered based on insightful research and evidence from case studies. Please see the Programme for more details on timing and speakers.

Keynote speakers
  • Thursday 8 November, 11.45–12.45: François Bourguignon, Paris School of Economics
  • Friday 9 November, 09.00–10.00: Vandana Shiva, author, scientist


09.00: Opening Session

09.30: Session 1. Inequality and Institutions: Political Barriers to Transformative Change (Room XXIII)

11.45: Keynote Address
        François Bourguignon, Paris School of Economics
      • Global and National Inequalities: A Worried Look into the Future

📺 Watch François Bourguignon keynote speech

14.00: Session 2a. Networks of Power in a Fractured World: The Role and Influence of Elites

14.00: Session 2b. The Role of Institutions in Perpetuating or Curbing Inequalities

16.00: Session 3a. Elite Ideology and Perceptions of Inequality: Implications for Redistribution and Social Cohesion
        Elites play a key role in perpetuating or deepening inequality, but also have the power to ameliorate it. Elites tend to hold key positions in political, economic and cultural domains of society, which gives them the opportunity to act as enlightened leaders and drivers for progressive change. How do elites perceive inequality, its causal drivers and consequences? How do they perceive their roles and responsibilities in relation to a greater public good, and how do they perceive themselves in relation to other elites or groups in society? What can encourage and incentivize, or pressure, elites—who control economies and political systems—to promote policies that lessen their share of influence?

16.00: Session 3b. Shifting Class Structures and Identities in the Age of Neoliberalism


09.00: Keynote Address
        Vandana Shiva, Author, scientist,
      • Oneness vs. The 1%

📺 Watch Vandana Shiva's keynote speech

10.30: Session 4a. Cities for Whom? Causes and Consequences of Urban Socio-Spatial Inequalities
        Inequalities often come to a head most visibly at the local level, spaces in which those at either end of the spectrum engage with each other on a daily basis, mediated through various forms of power relations as well as social, spatial and economic barriers. How do these cleavages impact daily life, and what consequences (economic, political, environmental, human) do they pose for a city, a country or individual lives? What effects have these fractures had on the social and spatial arrangements of communities—in particular through the closing out of public space and access to services and infrastructure—and what new challenges do these pose for groups such as women, the poor, and minorities, as well as the ecosystems they inhabit? As new lines are drawn, how are practices of citizenship being reshaped and what spaces for progressive change are being closed out—or opening up—as a result? What motivates choices to either opt out of a commitment to the public good through access to private means or to participate in an inclusive social compact?

10.30: Session 4b. Between Climate Justice and Social Exclusion: Towards an Eco-Social Approach

13.30: Session 5a. Towards Transformative Public Policy: Undermining Elite Power through Local Collaboration and Social Mobilization

13.30: Session 5b. Actors, Alliances and Strategies for a New Social Compact
        In the past, progressive policy change in industrialized democracies was often steered by broad cross-class coalitions between popular and middle classes that effectively pressured elites; in countries of the Global South, enlightened leaders and liberation movements often played a similar role. However, social and economic forces that underpinned progressive policy change of the past, such as workers’ movements and trade unions, take a very different shape today, as economic systems have evolved, identities have shifted, new forms of politics have unfolded, and new conceptions of class have arisen. In response, new forms of social movements have sprung up out of reinterpreted visions of citizenship, but their potential for long-term political impact has yet to be proven. What examples exist of peaceful processes of policy change that have levelled out social stratification and devolved power and resources from elites to non-elites, and what were the drivers or incentives in those processes? Which factors support the creation of cross-class coalitions and other forms of social mobilization for progressive policy reforms and transformative change? What examples exist in which social cleavages have been held at bay, and what mechanisms have been employed in these cases—be they on the transnational, national, subnational or local level—to achieve social progress within planetary boundaries?

15.45: Special Session. UN and Civil Society Roundtable: The Politics of Transformative Change
        This special session features policy makers, practitioners and activists in conversation about the challenges of inequality and transformative change from their perspective, bringing the conference to a practice-oriented close.
        The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits all states to be part of a new global compact that will leave no one behind. It explicitly aims to tackle inequality within and between countries (SDG 10) and genders (SDG 5) and to promote peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG 16), three goals that exemplify the scope and depth of the new global development strategy and the strong engagement of a range of actors such as civil society organizations, activists and academics in its making. While the aspirations of the Agenda are laudable, it is silent on a more substantive understanding of transformation, and how it will actually happen. What is needed now is a better understanding of the politics of transformative change: how can effective and durable national and global compacts be forged between the multiple stakeholders addressed in the SDGs? This roundtable will bring together activists, policymakers and UN representatives to ask what is needed to forge a new social compact that truly leaves no one behind.
      • Elliott Harris, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist (via videolink)
      • Ben Phillips, Launch Director, Fight Inequality Alliance
      • Anita Nayar, Director, Regions Refocus
      • Richard Jolly, Honorary Professor, Research Associate, University of Sussex

17.15: Closing Session

Please see the Programme for more details on the sessions.


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